By Neale McDevitt
A professor at the McGill School of Environment and the Department of Natural Resource Sciences, Elena Bennett, spends much of her research time looking at the ways ecosystems interact and provide multiple services for people. In that regard, she seems perfectly suited to spearhead the fledgling McGill Net Positive initiative, which is looking at ways to gather together many of the University’s diverse sustainability efforts under one roof in order to benefit from the synergy created by being part of the same, well, ecosystem.
“There are so many great initiatives happening at McGill in terms of sustainability that really span everything” said Bennett. “There are dozens of courses – if not more – that address sustainability; sustainability-driven research and teaching; the McGill School of Environment, the Office of Sustainability; and any number of sustainability actions happening on campus, like getting rid of cars on the downtown campus.
But everything is kind of happening on it’s own,” she continued. “It takes so much work to get one of these initiatives going, we just feel they would be able to feed off of each other more if there was a central space that housed all things sustainability.”
Driven primarily by the Office of Sustainability and the School of Environment, the Net Positive project is the first step in a community process to collaboratively imagine and design a hub for sustainability activities at McGill where members of the sustainability community could interact through the course of every day life.
The physical space (new or renovated) will embody principles of green building. It will be a home for sustainability on campus: a place for talks, workshops, and classes as well as for research. Built or renovated using the latest in green design, it will serve as a living laboratory for practicing sustainability and help cement McGill’s reputation as one of the nation’s place for sustainability research, education, and innovation.
But because space is at such a premium at McGill, Bennett says, at this point, it is more constructive to hammer out the details of who and what Net Positive will hold, rather than where it will be housed.
“We’re still in inspiration stage rather than the nuts and bolts stage,” Bennett said. “We want to draft our vision statement before we get down to brass tacks.”
In this regard, Net Positive will welcome four speakers – sustainability experts in their respective fields – in the coming weeks to share their experiences. For example, on Jan. 24, John Robinson, Associate Provost, Sustainability at the University of British Columbia will discuss UBC’s innovative Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS), including the design goals of the CIRS, the research program, its performance and the challenges faced in its creation. (For more information on Robinson’s talk, go here.)
“After these four speakers, we have half a day set aside for a workshop where we can begin to draft a vision statement. What would this actually look like at McGill? Do we care if it is a new building or a renovated one? We will list our priorities,” said Bennett. “We want to develop a specific, yet flexible, vision document that says ‘we can imagine this being in any of the following types of spaces…’
“You never know what is coming down the road,” said Bennett. “It’s the equivalent of an athlete being on their toes and ready to move when the ball comes their way versus standing flat-footed. We want to be ready for when the opportunity arises.”
Bennett says McGill is doing “OK” on the sustainability front, but that a central location would improve the University’s performance substantially.
“There has been a real turnaround here for the last couple of years,” said Bennett. Part of it was Jim Nicell taking the position as Associate Vice-Principal (University Services), part of it was Martin Krayer von Krauss being such a strong leader of the Office of Sustainability, part is just a growing interest among people to do useful things.”
“One of the strengths and values of being in a big university is that you are mixing together research and teaching in a big melting pot,” said Bennett. “The weakness, if you want to call it that, is that we’re not getting the max out of all these initiatives because we’re not connecting them in the way that we could. When those things are connected it will be all the more powerful.”